Saturday, July 27, 2013

Beverly McIver at Betty Cunningham Gallery

While my companion from Korea (Dominique J.) and I strolled through Chelsea during the yearly 'art walk,' we observed that most of the gallery hoppers were white.  Even though the art walk was free and everyone was welcome, I would estimate that 85% of the people there (if not more) were white.

So when we chatted about this, I joked and said, "Well, America is a very diverse country.  We have white culture, black culture, Latino culture, Asian culture..."

And she shot back: "Oh...and these cultures never mix?! Nice diversity!"

I said, "Unfortunately, very rarely do they mix."

I explained that US culture mirrors aspects of US society.  So we live in a society where, 50+ years after the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court (to ensure blacks and whites could attend the same schools), we still have black and white schools. Black and Latino students still cannot compete, for various social and economic reasons, with white and Asian young people.

We live in a society with a 'black' president who ran for office (twice) appealing to the middle class and who never, once, spoke out against poverty in America.

Furthermore, 50+ years after the 'black doll/white doll' experiment, young black children still seem to prefer playing with white dolls and consider the black dolls to be 'bad.'

If you've never heard of the black doll/white doll experiment, here's a clip:

The point of the black doll/white doll experiment was to show that African Americans in the USA have a tough time with issues involving an African American identity. In one part of the experiment, as you can see from the clip above, a black child is asked which doll is nice. The child points to the white doll.  When asked which doll is bad, a child points to the black doll.  When asked which doll the child looks like, the child wants to pick the white doll, but begrudgingly chooses the black doll.

We see this struggle for identity in the work of Beverly McIver at Betty Cunningham Gallery.  Indeed, it was ironic that shortly after discussing race in America we stumbled upon McIver's work at Cunningham.  Very few African Americans come into Chelsea to see the art and very few seem to be represented by galleries (Skoto Gallery traditionally represents black folks and Africans, however).

McIver once wrote: "As a child I had dreamed of becoming a clown to escape my black skin, poverty and the housing project I once called home.  Clowning was my disguise, my liberation."

Here we see three images of McIver (her paintings are autobiographical) praying. In the process of prayer we see pain and struggle.

In the first panel, above her portrait, she thanks God for her friends and family because they have been a great support to her.  In the second panel she thanks God for the election of Barack Obama and asks God to help Obama do wonderful things.  In the third panel she expresses gratitude for her 50th birthday.

Below, we see McIver at her birthday party.

Interestingly, McIver now teaches at a university in Durham, North Carolina, that has had a traditionally black student body.  Durham, North Carolina is a city, however, with significant racial issues.  Duke University (one of America's 'best') is located in this same city.  Although about half of Durham is black, about 90% (if not more) of the student body at Duke is white/Asian.  The infamous "Duke lacrosse case" happened in Durham, when the all-white, male Duke lacrosse team hired black strippers to entertain them at a party and there were allegations (later to be declared 'unfounded') of sexual harassment. 

So I think it's great that McIver, who could probably teach anywhere, is at North Carolina Central University.  It is essential that the visual arts not be a 'white' thing or an aspect of white culture.  The students there have an amazing artist to nurture and encourage them.

Here's the website for the gallery:

Wooden Stuff by Mangle at Magnan Metz Gallery

So why, in the early 20th century, did Marcel Duchamp turn a men's urinal over, sign it and then call it art?

I think Duchamp was more interested in focusing on how people go about interpreting art than he was in actually trying to convey ideas or experiences.  He was asking people to think about how they think about art.  When you look at a piece, what are the cognitive and emotional processes involved?  Why do you look at art?  What do you want to get from this process?  How do you hope to change by looking at art? What do you expect art and artists to do for you?

By taking a functional object and turning it upside down he was also, basically, saying: there is stuff we can use and then there is stuff we can't use, and the stuff we can't use is or can be 'art.'  It is there for us to think about or derive meaning from.  I think Duchamp showed that if you are really a thoughtful and insightful person, you can even derive meaning from an overturned urinal.

At Magnan Metz Gallery there is a group of artists from Colombia doing work in this vein.  Apparently the artists call themselves and, among other things, take household items and make exact duplicates of them in wood.  For instance, here is an electrical cord made of wood:

So what is your interpretation of this electrical extension cord?  By rendering the cord useless, the artist goads you into thinking about what it could mean symbolically.

I especially liked these elegantly twisted hammers.

To me, the twisted hammers indicate the end of a grim and ridiculous process in which the tools themselves were not even adequate for the job.  This represents the point where the person just says, "Enough already!  I'm finished!" Then he/she twists the hammers around each other in a last act of frustration.

The gallery's website:

Photos of the wooden cord and the twisted hammer were taken by Dominique J.

Friday, July 26, 2013

A colorful vulture by Anne Chu at Lehmann Maupin

Believe it or not, the vulture is one of the world's oldest 'religious' or spiritual symbols.

Even today the practice of 'sky burial' occurs in Tibet and among the Parsis in India.  The ancient Zoroastrian religion had 'towers of silence' where the corpses of recently deceased people were placed and where the vultures would pick apart and eat the flesh and then take off into the sky. So the practice of leaving a corpse for vultures to 'clean' is called 'sky burial'.

In the ancient world, one's bones were especially important because bones never decay - bones represented the eternal aspect of a person. It was important to clean the bones of the decaying flesh and then to properly take care of the bones.

Indeed, it was this practice of consuming the flesh of the corpse and then sailing up into the air that gave the vulture its symbolic meaning.  The vulture was like an early version of Hermes, the messenger god.  Or maybe even like the Valkyries who took the corpses of dead heroes up into the sky so their souls could rest in Valhalla.  The vulture represented the force or ability to raise the soul into a higher level of being.

Anne Chu created a really nice vulture for Lehman Maupin.

What I liked about Chu's vulture was that this vulture is not just a messenger, but seems to have transformative powers as well.  On the scarf wrapped around the vulture's neck there are little symbols often associated with the practice of ancient magic.

I think if we look at the evolution of religion, we probably see the use of animal and plant symbolism initially that then becomes anthropomorphized into human-like gods.  This colorful vulture represents (for me) an intermediary god/spirit (between the earth and the sky) much better than the human figures in mythology.

Gobekli Tepe, in Turkey, is currently the archeological site of what appears to be the oldest deliberately constructed religious structure ever found. It's about 12,000 years old.

We find illustrations of vultures, sculptures of vultures and sculpted vulture heads there.

A documentary about Gobekli Tepe:

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Paul Kolker's Light and Mirror Boxes

Paul Kolker has one of the coolest spaces for an art gallery in Chelsea.  In order to get to the gallery space you have to travel down a couple zig-zag flights of stairs to an underground area which looks and feels like an art bunker.  Or you can be more pragmatic and just take the elevator. Take the elevator and lose the experience of descending into Kolker's light and mirror wonderland? Never!

From Kolker's web site:

"In the 1980s Kolker began making light sculptures using one-way mirror and LED message screens, reflecting ad infinitum." 

To me it's like electronic Malevich.  He takes very simple geometric shapes and using just 6 mirrors per thin box creates a theoretical view of infinity. Or, you could even say he gives you a visceral sense of infinity.  The endless repetition of the basic image creates a three dimensional structure that perpetuates itself endlessly until the repetition is lost to our vision. Infinity then becomes something lacking light and structure. His work gives you a sense of beauty and a type of vertigo at the same time.

It's better to look into one of Kolker's boxes yourself, since a camera cannot capture the sense of depth and space Kolker's lights and mirrors create.  Nevertheless, my friend Eunyoung Oh did a great job taking these photos.

Looking into one of Kolker's boxes gives you the sense you are looking into a dark and endless electronically created tunnel. 

The repetition of the images also creates a crystalline form.  The image below could be perceived as anything from an atomic structure to a stained glass window of a church.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Edward del Rosario at The Nancy Margolis Gallery

Nancy Margolis traditionally has very thought-provoking and imaginative pieces at her gallery in Chelsea.

I found the work of Edward del Rosario to be amazing.  I wasn't able to get good photos of his work because the surface of his paintings is very glossy (he creates a beautiful sheen on his canvases) and so it was impossible to take photos without getting reflections from the gallery lights. I would recommend a trip to the Margolis Gallery at any time, because she consistently puts up amazing stuff!

Margolis writes that del Rosario paints "imaginary characters in stage-like environments" and that the work is deliberately "enigmatic." 

In the piece above, we see that some figures look over a type of parapet at a few folks of varying types who seem to have differing relations to the fort-like structure.  Among the figures outside are some who are simply dressed and wearing masks while some figures (from a rival or neighboring fort?) are elaborately dressed and circling the fort.

There's a definite class structure among the folks inside the fort - one guy is wearing a crown while two women are dressed as maids and there seems to be one military guy - and the beautifully dressed folks walking outside the fort seem to have a class structure as well (one is also crowned).

The three simply dressed figures seem more egalitarian in orientation. The two male figures, with masks, seem to be acting furtively, while the topless female character ingenuously stands watching after having gathered some type of food. Has she been caught in the act of 'poaching' (along with the male figures) by the approaching figures?  Is she a decoy to distract attention? Just what is going on here?  The "indigenous" two male figures have cans of gasoline and one of the approaching figures, with an elaborate dress, carries a fire on the end of her stick.

The piece is called "Civilization II," in fact, and it almost looks like an allegory on state development or 'tribal conflict' based on something like Fukuyama's The Origins of Political Order.  What I liked is the ambiguity of the story and relationship of the figures, but also the implication that once you urbanize, a totally different culture is created that embraces and reifies social class while concomitantly promoting the ideals of freedom and equality as a type of social lubricant (you have a type of common identity and equality of social obligation on the parapet - everyone is keeping watch). 

The religion of 'outsiders' or 'rural dwellers' often involves intense social bonding, self-sacrifice and a relationship of the whole society to nature.  The religion of 'cities' is traditionally a religion of tolerance, harmony and individual self-development within a structured social group. 

However, folks outside of this social group are often perceived as a 'threat' and the toleration, harmony and brotherly love are often not applicable to them.  When Ho Chi Minh visited Paris and New York, he was amazed by the rights that even very poor people had within those societies.  He was also appalled by how heartless the French and Americans were to his own society.  This seems to be the most salient message to me from the work of del Rosario.

Here's a link to the gallery. It's been one of my favorites for a long time.

Me in my art hat...yes I know I need to drop a few pounds...